THE BLOG

Jonathan Tasini: Too Principled for the Senate?

06/15/2006 04:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jonathan Tasini is fighting Sen. Hillary "do we have the focus group numbers in from last night" Clinton for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate from New York.

Although I am a registered Democrat, I am registered in Oregon, not New York. But if I lived in New York, I'd be tempted to vote for Jonathan because his positions and mine are very similar. I too, favor universal health care, the right of same sex couples to marry, the wisdom of at least considering impeachment, robust climate change legislation, a withdrawal from Iraq.

But there's something that bothers me about Jonathan Tasini. Although he fearlessly speaks truth to power, I think he may - strange as this sounds- be too principled to be an effective U.S. Senator.

My perspectives on Jonathan come almost entirely from my membership in the National Writer's Union, a membership interval that co-incided with his tenure as president of this union.

While a member, I remember receiving emails on a regular basis, alerting us about publisher abuses such as their wishes that all freelancers they hire sign waivers allowing these publishers full electronic republishing rights. Often, these rights would be at nominal, or no, additional payments to the author.

The stated position of Jonathan's National Writer's Union was that we should refuse to write for any publication that would force us to abide by these restrictions.

I recall admiring this stance in principle, but in principle only.

Why? This just won't work in the real world of freelancing.

In the real world of freelancing, freelancers have little, if any, leverage. Get to be known as a pain in the ass, and editors- even loyal ones who respect your work- will find someone else. Sometimes they will do this because their publishers force them to, but far more often it is that editors are underpaid, understaffed, hassled out, and the less pain-in-the-ass writers they have to deal with the better. I can't tell you how many times I have heard editors say to me that so and so is a "great writer," but man is he a pain in the ass to work with." And those people don't get hired.

Now in Jonathan's world, all the writers unite, see, and by the force of unity, they gather enough leverage to force these companies to change their writer relations for the better.

There have in fact, been improvements, but as a successful freelancer for decades I have to tell you that freelancers have no leverage. And if you get up, stand up, stand up for your rights, well, that's going to be one less $1,500 month gig. And what then? Do you show your National Writer's Union card to your apartment rental office or bank?

But in Jonathan's world, the forces of will, the forces of good, prevail. The National Writer's Union would love to see themselves with a similar cachet for freelancer's as Hollywood's Writer's Guild has for scriptsmiths. But there are fewer scriptsmiths than freelance writers.

Jonathan's NWU was great for member benefits, but under his direction, it picked battles without a sense of the real-world stakes I just described above.

Graft the behavior of Jonathan's NWU to that of a prospective U.S. Senator, and I sense an impractical ideologue.

Not that we don't need Jonathan Tasini out there, speaking truth to power. But the most effective liberal senators- Russ Feingold, Barbara Boxer, Patrick Leahy, Ted Kennedy, have a realpolitik about themselves that can see larger issues and can even bite their lip and work with the other side of the aisle when they have to.

I don't see that quality in Jonathan Tasini.